There are all kinds of prisons. We are all bound to live some part of our life trapped. Sometimes it’s just because of terrible circumstances like illness or a tumbling economy. Some prisons are of our own making, consequences of bad choices and evil desires.
However you got there, how long do you have to stay in prison before something significant changes? If you look carefully at the story of Joseph from the Old Testament you see a man who let his prison experience transform him into someone remarkable.
When Joseph was seventeen years old, he often tended his father’s flocks….Joseph’s brothers pulled him out of the cistern and sold him to them for twenty pieces of silver. And the traders took him to Egypt. – Genesis 37:2, 28
He was thirty years old when he began serving in the court of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. And when Joseph left Pharaoh’s presence, he inspected the entire land of Egypt. – Genesis 41:46
How long does it take to go from being a selfish punk to the most influential man in Egypt? He seems to have spent a good part of thirteen years as a slave to Potiphar and then in prison because of the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife. His physical imprisonment came to an end when he was able to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh. He told the king…
“It is beyond my power to do this, but God can tell you what it means and set you at ease.” – Genesis 41:16
This is the same man who as a teenager spent too much time dancing around his brothers flaunting that “amazing technicolor dreamcoat” their father had given to only him. He was such a miserable person to be around, they felt like killing him, literally.
What happened to him during those years in slavery and prison that transformed him into a man who could calmly walk into the court of the most powerful king on earth and bear witness of the power of God?
As incredible as it reads, Joseph’s story is everyone’s story. We all face opportunities to either be transformed or remain in prison. There are all kinds of prisons that enslave people. Defeats can fall on us like a flood. No one is immune.
Wherever you are right now – whatever the prison might look like – it doesn’t matter how you got there. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how you are going to get out – often this is out of your control. Think about the ways that relationships evolve, long-term sickness, a career that’s changing. What always matters is what’s happening to you while you are in that prison. What is God going to do in your life, with your life, through your life because of this experience?
When people are in prison they always face a number of choices:
- Prison can cripple people. Even when released people often carry within them, for too long, their imprisonment experience. It haunts them even as they walk in freedom. It is as if they remain in prison and die a little every single day. They relive their defeats like a never ending re-run of doom.
- In prison, some people build a new life – a future self. This takes time, involves others and there are certainly mistakes along the way. When freedom comes, they are ready to start life anew, their thinking has changed and they see with a bigger vision. But they have to wait for freedom to arrive in order to start living their new life.
- Others learn, over time, to differentiate between internal and external circumstances – they come to recognize what is passing and what is eternal. They can see beyond their chains and recognize what is temporary and what matters. The prison experience transforms their perspective and in so doing it provides an eternal freedom. No matter where they find themselves, these people discover true freedom.
What is prison doing for you? For Joseph it was a time to wait until just the right time. It was an experience that transformed him into a man ready to serve God, not his own wishes.
It seems strange to urge that you pray, not to be set loose from your chains, but instead to let your earthly chains set you truly free.
“How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet